People Vitality at Unilever – a Case Study in Trust

Mind Environment’s November Leadership Forum centred on the theme of ‘trust’, which got me thinking about my work at Unilever some years ago. As Global Organisation Development Director I was invited to develop an approach to reflect the company’s Vitality mission, for employees. With more than 150k people in more than 100 countries, where do you begin?  

Being new I sought to form a guiding coalition, bringing together respected leaders from across business groups who had some functional influence on what vitality could mean, including brands, R&D, social responsibility, HR, Communications and IT. We spent 3 days together exploring direct expressions of vitality, such as Dove’s campaign for real beauty, which challenged the notion of an ideal body image portrayed by advertisers, and seconding employees to the World Food Programme, an early expression of giving back. We also considered factors that hindered vitality, like poor technology or office environments, as well as leadership culture.

I was convinced that the event needed to be a vitality experience in its own right, to achieve a quality outcome. The vitality experience we built involved a venue where people could explore ideas whilst walking in beautiful outdoor spaces and gardens; consider food and nutrition as a core element of wellbeing, before preparing and cooking meals together. The consensus was that we arrived at a significantly better outcome than we would have after one or even two days in a typical conference room, because the blend of time and context allowed people to move beyond their starting mindsets.

With so many ways to enable vitality at work we knew we had to make a call for the business, to pursue a few areas where we could make a realistic difference, and so we  created the People Vitality framework below.

Whatever we put forward we agreed that our approach should focus on winning hearts and minds, rather than seeking to pursue a top-down strategic thrust. More an invitation to develop local/business unit initiatives, under this framework, and following the energy and enthusiasm. This worked well where wellbeing workshops were offered to employees, for example, and we shared the learning and shared best practise centrally, which encouraged more uptake where there had been hesitancy.

One area where this approach would not work though was in the desire to address intercontinental travel, particularly for those in global roles. The business was spending £12m per year on air travel and evidence of fatigue and burnout was growing, never mind the environmental impact. We had identified a cutting-edge video conferencing experience, mimicking a real meeting, across multiple locations, with eye contact. The governance process would not endorse the £6m investment required (due to the criteria for approvals) to build conference suites in the UK, US, Brazil, Singapore and the Netherlands. We invited a sympathetic Board member to join a meeting over the new technology, organised by the supplier, connecting three global locations. We used the meeting to explore the business benefits of the technology, including cost savings in flights, hotels and transfers, which would pay for the investment within two years. Of course, we also restated the benefits to wellbeing, in the context of our People Vitality approach.

It is now crystal clear how pivotal it was to build a strong relationship with the sponsor and engage him early as we developed our approach to People Vitality. By the time we were sitting in that video conferencing suite I had his trust. The technology sold itself and we simply needed to give him the confidence that we would deliver and that he was able to defend the business case and our ‘flying under the radar’ approach. The five sites (in regional HQ offices) were built and a number of us were pulled-up for the way we had by-passed the governance process. Interestingly, today Unilever has more than 100 of these video conferencing suites around the world… presumably a godsend during the pandemic!

My learning was that the journey has to be carefully considered and stakeholders nurtured. If a quality outcome is to be achieved then relationships built on trust are key.

Andy Iwaniec, Group Process Facilitator, Mind Environment, 1st December 2020